Murtzcellanious: Murtz Jaffer Talks To Apprentice: Martha Stewart's Jeff Rudell

The Apprentice: Martha Stewart is well underway, and this is clear because the first candidate has been let go. Jeff Rudell discusses his life behind the camera and explains what his main problems were with Dawn and Jim.

Murtz Jaffer: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Jeff Rudell that we didn’t get to see on TV?

Jeff Rudell: I could tell you that I’ve made a career out of working for difficult (some would say impossible) people; that I am known for my organizational skills and my ability to handle logistically challenging projects; and that I’m much more accommodating and patient with people than might be suggested by my 15 minutes of fame.

While I could tell you all of this, it’s almost impossible to do so without it sounding like I’m trying to save face or repair my image so, instead, I’ll tell you that I’m the sort of person who takes his work very seriously but never personally. Which means, I’m sort of okay with being portrayed in a way that I think might be substantially at odds with how I really am.

MJ: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where did you go to school? How did you start your company?

JR: I grew up on a farm in Michigan and attended Michigan State University for one year. When I told my parents I was gay they disowned me and so I discontinued my college education and went to work to support myself. I am a voracious reader and I am always teaching myself something or learning something from someone else.

My, so called, people skills and profit skills are such that I was hired first by a State Representative in Lansing, MI to handle constituent relations and was then recruited by a Mission to the United Nations in New York to be their Economic Development officer.

From there I went on to become a development consultant for not-for-profit organizations in here in the city.

I spent six years as an administrator at the American Academy in Rome (America’s premiere overseas center for research and study for artists and scholars) before starting my own graphic design and consulting firm called Strychnine Design.

In February I went to an open call audition for the Apprentice (thinking it would be a hoot to at least try out for such a thing). The rest you know.

MJ: Some of the people that I was watching the first episode with, asked me how guys can go on a show that involves Martha Stewart. How would you respond?

JR: I have to ask, did those same people ask why a woman would want to go on a show that involves Donald Trump? I suspect not, though here is probably not the place to address the topics of sexism in the workplace, the habit of discounting the work of women, or the lack of appreciation for what is, without question, an incredibly well-crafted brand.

Some people think of Martha Stewart as a domestic diva, which she is, but to think of her as “only” a domestic diva is to overlook the fact that she’s an incredibly successful executive, the founder of a billion dollar company (that’s billion with a “b”), a leader in content development across media (magazines, books, television, the Internet, and now satellite radio), and one of the best known brands in America — if not the world. I would think anyone with a serious interest in business would jump at the chance to learn from such a powerful and successful leader. I certainly did.

I don’t mean to sound highfalutin here. The truth of the matter is I am drawn to, and fascinated by, people who are the best at what they do. If Martha had ONLY been someone who could perfectly wrap a present, make a flawless turkey dinner, or refinish an antique table, I still would have been first in line to be her Apprentice.

MJ: Almost immediately, the teams divided themselves into “creative” and “corporate.” Do you think that this was a good idea?

JR: I can’t very well say it was a horrible idea, since I didn’t put up much of a fuss about it at the time.

Creative/Corporate is, in fact, a gross simplification of the applicants (myself included) since many of the Creative members are very accomplished business people in their own right and, likewise, those who self-selected as Corporate are some of the most imaginative people I’ve ever met.

I suppose in a perfect world we would have divided ourselves by job description: one lawyer per team, one creative director per team, one chef per team. But, you have to keep in mind two things: 1.) no one was very interested in being defined by the job they currently had; they were much more eager to be defined by the job they were seeking — namely, that of a well-rounded, astute, creative, tough, business leader with vision, and 2.) no one really cared if the teams were evenly matched; we all wanted to be on the team with an advantage.

So, we walked into the loft, we shared a toast of Champagne, we enjoyed twenty minutes of casual conversation, and then we were asked to decide who we wanted to team up with. It was the ultimate exercise of thin-slicing, of making intuitive decisions based on how we interacted with each other. Imagine yourself in a room with fifteen people, each working very hard to accentuate (exaggerate, even) their assets while working equally hard to minimize or disguise their weaknesses or liabilities and then imagine having to select who you’d most like to work alongside. Keep in mind that it’s not as easy as just picking seven people you like since each of those seven is also going through the same selection process in their own mind.

I’m not making excuses. I actually thought it was very interesting to see how we split; to see who went with whom. I think in such situations people naturally gravitate toward the familiar. For better or worse, I think we each prefer the evil we know to the good we don’t.

MJ: Who came up with the Matchstick name?

JR: As you saw in the episode, we all, as a team, discussed possible names for our company. Everyone was keen to find some way of highlighting our creative bent, to indicate that we were an idea lab, that we were unafraid to take a risk for the big idea, and mostly that we had big plans for success. The tendency in such situations is to go for the grandiose (e.g. Primarius Corporation.) but that frequently results in a vague and ill-defining name that tells your consumer very little about who you are or what you do (e.g. Primarius Corporation, again.)

I suggested Matchstick to my teammates along with the tag line “The start of something big.” As a graphic designer and creative director, I’m always looking for that one thing that will convey, in a word or an image, a wealth of information. Matchstick did just that. It did it for my teammates and it also worked for Martha. Upon hearing it she remarked that she could immediately see the logo in her head and she grasped what it was we were hoping to represent.

Of course any company whose name even hints at hubris risks embarrassment if it stumbles along the way. Keep in mind, though, that you don’t set out on this journey to lose (I certainly didn’t) and playing it safe rarely impresses a boss.

MJ: Do you regret taking over the reins of the team so quickly? I am sure you have watched the Apprentice before and usually the project manager is always the first one to get the boot.

JR: I am a big fan of the Apprentice and, yes, the PM is usually the one to go. (Before going on the show I crunched a few numbers on this. Historically, the PM has a 61% chance of being fired, so I knew what I was getting into.) Still, nothing is more annoying (or ridiculous) than to watch a bunch of self-proclaimed business leaders run from the chance to lead.

While I have met with a great deal of success in my life, the most important and valuable lessons I learned are the ones I learned from my failures. Every time I missed the mark, every time I underestimated my opponent, every time my strategy came crashing down around me, I walked away better prepared for the next challenge. While I’m proud of my successes, my failures have been much more numerous and much more important. I think this is true of most people (though some are loath to admit it.)

Let’s not forget, we ARE talking about reality TV here. This wasn’t a situation were lives were on the line so my threshold for risk was substantially elevated. We are talking about a room full of type-A personalities, each vying for a job (without knowing what that job actually is) by undertaking a task (without knowing what that task is going to be) on an insanely short timetable, in front of TV cameras (and a viewing audience in the millions.) It sounded like an exhilarating challenge to me and I jumped at the chance to be the PM.

Sure the risks were high (and the price of failure would likely be my being fired) but the possible rewards were sensational.

MJ: What was your biggest problem with Dawn?

JR: Dawn was a pain in the ass. No two ways about it. She whined about everything. She never offered constructive criticism, just criticism and she never seemed to have any suggestion about how we might do things differently. She demanded constant attention and she never offered a unique or productive idea to the group. I could forgive her all of these faults since, in the real world, we all have worked alongside this sort of person.

The one thing I couldn’t forgive or overlook was that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the work. She first had to have complete silence then she had to have more time then she had to have a nap then she had to have a banana. Meanwhile, Chuck and David and Shawn and Bethenny and Marcela were busy offering suggestions on story structure, meeting with executives, editing text, gathering information, sketching out illustrations and, in short, getting the job done.

In the one hundred hours of footage you didn’t see, were countless instances of us all trying to give Dawn what she said she needed: silence, attention, encouragement, responsibility, more attention, and on and on. Near the end of the project, when it became clear that Dawn had contributed very little to the process, and likely had little interest in doing so — when it became clear that Dawn was actively working against the project — I closed her down, much to the relief of my teammates. If I looked like a jerk doing so, that’s unfortunate. I’m all for tolerance and team-building but you can’t have someone on your team who doesn’t want to be there and isn’t willing to pull her weight.

If Dawn had once offered a suggestion that was good or constructive I’m sure the rest of the team would have rallied to her side. To hear her and Jim tell it, I am some sort of Business Svengali, who seduced and hypnotized a team of weaker minds in a tyrannical bid for ultimate domination of the process, the show and the world!!!! I wish that I had such power.

The truth is, my ideas may not have been the best but they were the best ones offered up in that room and nobody, certainly not Dawn, offered anything even remotely close. While hindsight is a great corrective lens, the fact remains that when we were in the middle of the project, everyone was not only happy with our concept and our product but where fully engaged and involved in authoring it.

The only real regret I have (besides losing, of course, *laughs*) is that the exceptional and imaginative work of our illustrator, Brian Biggs, won’t be seen by the public at large. The book was beautiful but, like a lot of “almost” great projects, it met with an early demise.

MJ: If you could go back, would you still use the same story and rhyming format that you employed?

JR: We selected the story as a team, we put it to a vote, so no, I wouldn’t pick a different story. When we met with the Random House executives we asked them what their top selling children’s books were and they showed them to us; a number of them used rhyme so we wanted to try our hand at that (our team was working in the Dr. Seuss Room at the Random House headquarters,for heaven’s sake. It almost seemed like a sign to us that we should try rhyme.)

Looking back I can say that we definitely overshot our mark. The story was a little too long (as in, too many words) for our audience and it did not have enough humor in it. We took a risk by making our two main characters misbehaved children instead of hapless victims. But, we had a wonderful lesson at the end of the book and, had it been tested with adults as well as children (and remember, Martha said our target audience was both children AND parents) I think we would have scored much better. The book ends with a good Samaritan mother (who has just helped Hansel and Gretel find their way back home) saying to our two main characters:

“Adventures are fun, I know for a fact,
But if you go out you have to get back.”

“The world is a wonder for you both to enjoy
But a wonder is not the same as a toy.

Be sure to be safe, and never stray far, And take one of your parents wherever you are.”

This was a message we thought would connect both with kids and with their parents. Martha disagreed.

MJ: You seemed to be someone that could make hard decisions really quickly and had no problem with standing by them, once they were made. Is that how you are in real life as well?

JR: If three seasons of the Apprentice have taught me anything it’s that indecision is a terminal flaw. Too often, I think, people worry about making the perfect decision when, in fact, perfection isn’t what’s required. Frequently, not always,mind you but frequently, all that’s required is “a” decision rather than “the” decision.

For me the key is to take stock of your resources, understand your goal, and take a step forward. Then, if need be, re-evaluate your resources, take another siting of your goal and move forward another step. Indecision leads to paralysis and failure. Constant monitoring of the situation and the wherewithal to take steps forward, often leads to success (and sometimes resounding success.)

Decisions are not always easy but they are necessary. Yes, you will make mistakes occasionally but mistakes are not what kill a project. Everyone makes mistakes. Success comes when you recognize that you’ve made a mistake, and take actions to correct it. That calls for decision making.

As for standing by decisions, no, not if they are wrong. Case in point would be Dawn. I’d asked her to read our story to our focus group but when I realized what a bad decision that was I immediately corrected it.

MJ: What was your biggest mistake?

JR: A friend of mine, who is a reality TV maven, told me that my biggest mistake was that I treated the show as a job interview and not as a game. She says I should have refused to be the project manager on the first task and, furthermore, that I should have insisted that Dawn take on the job and that then I should have encouraged and supported her every poor decision. The result, she claims, would still have been a loss for our team but it would have been a miserable, catastrophic loss and Dawn would have been sacrificed “like a lamb to slaughter.”

It sounds like a winning strategy to me but it also sounds so alien to the way I work as to be almost unthinkable. In my business you learn to take stock of the resources you have available and to use them to the best of your ability. I tired to do that, notably by having Shawn, a trained newscaster and public speaker, take over a responsibility that Dawn was clearly ill-suited to perform.

I may have looked like a power-hungry megalomaniac in episode one but now that I’m gone, we’ll see if the problems remain. My guess is that Dawn will still be Dawn and that she will continue to be a major liability to everyone around her. But, happily, Dawn is no longer my problem. Now she’s Martha’s problem to deal with.

MJ: What did you think of Jim and why did you pick him to take in the boardroom with you?

JR: The world has caught only a glimpse of Jim but, trust me, there’s plenty more to see. If I had to speculate, I’d say he has a burning desire to be Omarosa but he lacks her poise and sophistication and so comes across as a pale imitation.

To be fair, I’d say he knows how to play the game very well and with that he may go far. However, over the course of our time together he repeatedly made sexual and suggestive comments and gestures that would be grossly inappropriate in a real workplace, acted out in loud and aggressive ways (that some felt were threatening) and he didn’t always tell the truth about what went on. To his credit he was somewhat indiscriminate; behaving badly for in front of both men and women. In my world, in the real world that is, he wouldn’t last a day. In “reality TV” land, though, he may have found a home at last.

MJ: Do you think that he is there to actually win, or just to get some attention?

JR: I couldn’t say why he’s there but if I had to speculate I’d guess that you’ll have a chance to ask him this question yourself sometime soon. Then again, he may be exactly what Martha’s looking for in an Apprentice. Tune in to find out.

MJ: Who were your closest friends from the cast?

JR: Sarah, Leslie and Chuck are definitely members of my “tribe.” I recognized them as friends the moment I met them.

MJ: Were you surprised about Bethenny’s connection?

JR: No more so than Bethenny herself, I think. She found out that Charles Koppelman was involved in the show one day before filming began and she was forthright and open about it all to everyone. One thing you learn about New York City is that it’s just a small town with big buildings. What really surprised me was that there weren’t other connections among the cast members.

What I think you’re really asking is whether or not I think Bethenny has an unfair advantage over the other cast members because of someone she knew 15 years ago. I think not. If anything she’s got a steeper climb ahead of her than the rest of the contestants since Martha and Charles will be eager to avoid the suggestion of favoritism. I wish her luck. It’s a disadvantage I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

MJ: You have performed at The Moth (which is a non-profit storytelling organization in New York City). Did this experience help or hurt you on the task?

JR: I’d say my background in storytelling was a definite asset on the task. Our story was tight, it had strong protagonists, it had high stakes and it resolved beautifully. It could have benefited from some market research which would have made it even better.

Where my Moth experience really helped was in preparing me to be on the show itself. In traditional storytelling, an author strives to
have well-rounded, fully fleshed out characters — characters that are complicated and sometimes contradictory — in order to heighten the drama of the story.

In reality TV, the opposite is the case. Complicated characters are reduced to two dimensions, complicated situations are simplified, and nuance is abandoned in the service of making the show more dramatic.

What this meant was that I knew going into the show that we all risked being portrayed dramatically but inaccurately. But, as I’ve said, the opportunity to be a part of the Apprentice experience, far outweighed any bruise to my ego I was apt to suffer.

MJ: Why did you choose Hansel & Gretal as your story and would you pick a different fable if you could go back?

JR: While I touched on this question earlier, no, I don’t think the problem was the story we chose to interpret and update. The problem was that we didn’t run a focus group with children early on in order to find out what worked well with our story and what didn’t work at all.

The issue came up but Jim and Marcela (who both have children) were adamant that they “knew” what children liked and would respond to. Jim even went so far as to say that he was essentially a “kid” himself. (Truer words were never spoken and, if I had to guess, I’d say he is somewhere in the neighborhood of the “terrible twos.”)

MJ: Did you know that the other team had picked Jack & The Beanstalk, and if not, how did you know what the other team was doing (so that you could pick another story)?

JR: We didn’t know what the other team had picked. Each team was asked to select a first choice and a second choice and Hansel and Gretel was our first choice and Jack and the Beanstalk was our second.

MJ: Were you surprised that Dawn and Jim aligned so quickly against you in the conference room?

JR: I was a little surprised by Jim since no one complained louder about, or railed against, Dawn more strongly than he did. As is probably wildly apparent to everyone at this point, he is not as he seems to be.

MJ: What is your opinion of Martha Stewart, both before the show started and now after?

JR: I actually like her a great deal more now, after the show, than I did before the show began. She’s been called a bitch and a terror to work for and she’s been parodied and poked fun at for her attention to detail and her interest in the best of the best. After meeting her and seeing her in action I actually sort of relate to her more than I expected I would. She believes in things passionately, she believes that good is not good enough when great is possible and she has no tolerance for things that disappoint her (myself included.) How great would it be to live ones life that way?

MJ: This seems like a much “nicer” Apprentice than Donald Trump’s. Is that how it really is?

JR: Are you kidding me? I consider myself very fortunate to have escaped with a mere, “You don’t fit in.” Martha is an iron-fisted business woman and if you didn’t see fireworks last week, I think you will see them next week and in the weeks to come. The “kinder and gentler” Martha you keep hearing about does not mean she’s grown more tolerant of poor decision making, bad behavior, chaotic project management.

MJ: Does it suck being the first one to say goodbye?

JR: “Does it suck being the first one to say goodbye?”

Have you been taking euphemism lessons from Martha? It sucks to be FIRED. Dress it up however you please but the gist of it is “your ass is out of here.” Sure. I hated it. Nobody enjoys failing (despite whatever lessons might be to learn from such experiences, that doesn’t mean they’re fun or pleasant.)

Add to that the fact that you get to experience this usually private and very humbling moment of rejection and diminishment in front of millions of viewers and that your actions (selected and edited) will become the topic of conversation among all manner of Monday-morning quarterbacks.

Yes, it sucks in the extreme.

Then again, I can tell you that given the choice of sitting in the hot seat in the conference room or sitting on a couch somewhere watching someone else face the fire, I’d take the conference room every time. I’d much rather be in the game than sit in the stands watching it.

MJ: That letter that Martha writes at the end of every episode. Do you actually get a copy of that when you leave?

JR: I didn’t just get a copy of the letter Martha wrote, I got the actual letter itself. I framed it and hung it on my wall as a reminder of one of the most exciting and invigorating and challenging things I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of. In it she misspelled my name (she wrote JeffREY when my parents spelled it JeffERY.) It’s nice to look up and be reminded that even someone as powerful and smart and accomplished and successful as Martha Stewart sometimes makes a mistake.

MJ: Who did you like the most, like the least, would fire next and would ultimately hire to be your Apprentice?

JR: I have to give it to Bethenny because she saw the situation
as it really was and wasn’t afraid to say so. Some people came into
the show with an “I’ll do whatever it takes to win” attitude. Bethenny came in with an “I’ll do what’s right” attitude which I think is exactly what it REALLY takes to win.

As for who I’d fire next, I wouldn’t hazard a guess at this point. All I can say for certain is there are sure to be fourteen more to get the axe and my guess is Dawn and Jim will be among them

Thanks!